Not many cities in the world can brag about having as much history as Erbil has.
Historians claim that the city has been permanently inhabited since the 5th millennium B.C., making it one of the oldest cities in the world, if not the oldest. Erbil’s Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site for being an astonishing example of a multilayered archaeological mound, today overlooking a modern city that has grown around it over the centuries.
With more than 7,000 years of history, Erbil – or Hawler, as the locals call it – is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a city with fantastic old bazaars and traditional cafés, which can all be visited while you bump into the many locals that hang out in the lively Erbil’s central square.
Nevertheless, if you think that visiting Erbil is just about wandering around a traditional Muslim city, you are completely wrong because Erbil is a modern metropolis which for the last years, has become a regional business hub, home to a large expat community and some of the best nightlife in the Middle East, often compared to Beirut.
I have traveled to Erbil three times, so here is a complete Erbil tourism guide, which includes the best things to do in Erbil, as well as plenty of travel tips.
Where to stay
How to go to Erbil
Things to do
Where to eat
Remember to get travel insurance for Iraq
IATI Insurance is one of the very few that covers travel in Iraqi Kurdistan (+ COVID-19)
Get 5% discount if purchasing via this link
Do you need a visa to go to Erbil?
Most Western nationalities, including EU countries, the USA, Canada and Australia, among many others, can easily purchase a visa on arrival for 75USD or 60€. For more information, read my Iraqi Kurdistan travel guide
In Erbil, accommodation can get pricey, as there are no hostels and guest houses and the cheapest options can’t be booked online.
Budget Hotel – Fareeq – With super friendly staff and modern facilities, this reasonably budget hotel is the cheapest hotel in town that can be booked online. It has loads of positive reviews and the location is great. Overall, a good, practical option.
Nicer – Erbil View Hotel – This hotel is one of the best value-for-money options in Erbil. Everybody claims that the staff are amazing, as well as the breakfast and the hotel in general.
Top-end – Divan Erbil Hotel – One of the most popular luxury choices in Erbil. If you are looking for real comfort and affordable luxury, this is the place to stay in Erbil.
I also traveled to Mosul from Erbil, and you can read about it here
Erbil has an international airport, Istanbul (both Turkish and Pegasus) and Dubai (Fly Dubai) being the cheapest and most common routes.
For more information on how to travel to Erbil, check the Getting in section of my Kurdistan guide.
Getting to and from Erbil airport is a bit tricky. Due to extreme security measures, you can’t actually reach the airport by car, but you can take a free shuttle bus that connects the airport with the actual arrival terminal.
There is only one taxi company which is allowed to go to the actual airport. They tend to be particularly expensive so, if you want to save some money, take the shuttle bus that goes to the arrival terminal. Taxis there are cheaper and for going to Erbil, they typically charge 20-30USD, depending on where you go.
You can just take a regular taxi, which will charge around 20USD. The taxi will drop you off at the arrival terminal, from where you must take a shuttle bus to the airport. You will go through so many security layers, so do head to the airport well in advance.
The easiest and most comfortable way to move around. Typically, any ride within the city costs from 3,000 to 5,000ID.
Most likely, you won’t need to take a bus but, if you are traveling on a budget and staying in Erbil’s suburbs – in New Hawler for example – you may have to take the bus. The bus station is close to the citadel, next to Downtown Mall.
Local shared taxis are the most common way of moving around the country. You may also find mini-vans, which are cheaper but they travel to very few places and run less often. In any case, the terminal is right here: 36.205632, 44.046895.
In my Kurdistan itinerary, you can read more about it.
Remember to get travel insurance for Iraq
IATI Insurance is one of the very few that covers travel in Iraqi Kurdistan (+ COVID-19)
Get 5% discount if purchasing via this link
Erbil is quite small, hence, most sites can be reached on foot.
Click on the image to see the interactive map
The best thing to do in Erbil is visiting its main square, a lively place that is miles away from the stereotype you may have of Iraq.
This is where the Kurds meet, socialize and, basically, hang out. It is always crowded with all kinds of people, from kids to the local young hipsters and old men in their traditional clothes.
The square is enjoyed by sitting on any terrace from the many cafés around, which are always filled with Kurds having chai and smoking shisha. Just sit down, observe and all the pieces will come together.
Read: Places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan – A 2-week itinerary
The Kurds, especially the elderly, have one hobby, which is that they spend the whole day buying, selling and playing around with worry-beads, a sort of necklace. They touch them, squeeze them and switch them from one hand to the other, non-stop, for the whole day.
You can see people playing with worry-beads all over the Middle East, especially in Turkey, but seriously, nowhere else it is as crazy as in Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan in general.
Traditionally, they used them for praying but then, they became a way to fight against stress, to the extent that it has become a habit which they can’t stop.
There is even a worry-bead market in the main square itself, one of the most interesting things to see in Erbil.
Erbil’s Citadel has over 7,000 years of history and it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage in 2014.
Nobody lives inside anymore but there are museums, buildings under restoration, and a souvenir shop, where you can buy fridge magnets, carpets or even a coffee cup featuring Sadam Hussein.
To be very honest, the inside of the citadel is not very exciting, as the restorations seem to take forever. The views, however, the best ones to see in Erbil, especially at sunset, when the orange light covers up the minaret and clock tower of the main square.
Ankawa is home to the largest Christian community in Kurdistan, an area packed with loads of liquor stores and churches and, of course, where the nightlife in Erbil is going on.
The area is very pleasant to walk around, as you barely see cars and you won’t experience the chaos the Middle East is famous for.
Moreover, if you are tired of Kurdish food, here you will find a large variety of international restaurants, including Indian, Italian or Lebanese.
They are a bit pricey but they are pretty good. I actually got some amazing Indian dal and curry but, perhaps, it was because I had spent more two months eating the same thing every day when I was traveling in Iran, so putting some Indian spices into my mouth was like an explosion of flavors.
After some hard-backpacking, Ankawa was one of the best places I visited in Erbil.
By the way, Ankawa is a bit far from Erbil’s citadel (5-6km). A taxi should cost around 3,000-4,000ID.
Read: Solo female travel in Kurdistan
A visit to Erbil won’t be completed without enjoying a cup of tea at Mam Khalil Tea House.
Serving everyone from famous politicians to tourists and all the locals in general, Mam Khalil was opened in 1952 and hasn’t been closed since then.
The most famous Kurdish intellectuals and politicians and from other places in the Middle East have slurped sweet Kurdish tea in this hidden, cozy café, and you should do the same.
It’s located inside the covered bazaar.
Another epic, historical café which you can visit is Machko Chai Khana, built into the wall of the citadel, western part of the square. Opened in 1940, it’s actually older than Mam Khalil, but I personally find Mam Khalil to be cozier.
This maze of narrow alleys contains the most traditional shops in the city, from fabrics to dried fruits.
Allow some time to walk around and besides Mam Khalil’s teahouse, I particularly liked the jamadany shop – the traditional Kurdish scarf, whose design changes across the region – and the klash workshop – where they make and sell the traditional hand-made Kurdish shoes
Uusally, locals don’t mind being photographed so, if you are into street photography, this is the place to go.
The craziest place.
The exchange offices in Erbil are street stalls with no security, where the locals have huge bundles of money on the counter, without a window, without surveillance and in the middle of the street.
You can find a few money exchange stalls in the covered bazaar, but there is a specific market with plenty of them. Most stalls have Iraqi Dinars but I saw a few tables with loads of Syrian notes with Bazar al-Assad’s face printed on them.
It’s sort of a sensitive place, so be careful when taking photos.
Not sure whether this may be considered graffiti or not but there are some peculiar murals on a few walls across the city.
All of them represent peace, Kurdish soldiers’ heroism and the important role that women play in military Kurdish affairs. In case you didn’t know, the Kurdish women participate in the battlefield.
I saw these paintings when I first traveled to Erbil back in 2015. However, those walls belonged to a Government building and, after taking the photo, some soldiers came from across the street and were actually quite upset.
It was not a big deal anyways but, when I came back in 2018, the murals were gone.
Read: Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq
For your information, Kurds are not Arabs, yet, both cultures have been coexisting for a long time.
The old Arab quarter is located in downtown and, nowadays, it is completely abandoned, in ruins, which makes it particularly interesting to walk around and feel the creepiness of the place.
Located within a walking distance from Erbil’s square, this is the largest mosque in the city, whose design resembles the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo. The interior is absolutely jaw-dropping.
It’s relatively new. Its construction began in 2005 and was completed in 2007.
Some non-Muslim travelers have reported having some trouble getting in. It depends on the guard’s mood but generally, dress modestly and try NOT to be there during the time of prayer.
My list of the best places where to eat in Erbil.
Iskan street food – An entire street packed with tens of fast-food restaurants which are all opened 24/7, the busiest time being after 12am. Here you will find the best shawarma in Erbil.
Best local kebab – Kebab Yasin – Arguably, the best place for kebab in town. It’s located inside the covered bazaar.
Best Syrian restaurant – Fuul w Hummus – In Erbil, there is a huge Syrian population and this restaurant serves the best Syrian food.
Best Kurdish restaurant – Tamdar – The best spot for traditional Kurdish food.
I never considered travel to Iraq, but you’ve made me second-guess myself. The citadel and main square are simply gorgeous.
So interesting to see and learn about a city I’m not at all familiar with. The contrast between so many thousands of years of history and modern cultural aspects like street art would make it a really interesting city to experience.
And, in addition to what you say, Erbil is a developed that has served as a business hub in the Middle East for decades. They are rich in petrol and there’s an uprising middle class!
Hello, as a kurd and someone who lives in Erbil,I’m really glad you liked Erbil and the
way you described Kurdistan really moved me and I’m sure the same happened to every other kurd that read this,so thanks alot!
it is my pleasure 🙂
Thanks Joan, it’s such an interesting place to visit! For most people, Kurdistan and Iraq is probably not going to be a place they would seek to travel to but it’s posts like this one which show the human side to these destinations that will hopefully inspire people to visit. And shawarma, everyone loves shawarma…..
Hey Kim, yes you are absolutely right. My only objective is to inspire people by making them see that Kurdistan is a safe and awesome place to visit. Yeah, everybody loves shawarma but when is the only choice available, after 4 days you hate it for life!
Looks like there’s plenty to see! I think it would be fascinating to visit Iraq but I’d be a bit concerned about safety. I went to Syria just before the war and was so glad to get the chance to visit before many of the historic sites were destroyed. Is there a political undercurrent in Iraq?
WOW! I’m so jealous that you went to Syria. When did you go? I tried to go a couple of months back, but just to Damascus as it’s still safe. I wanted to go there to visit some friends but getting a visa is pretty hard. Yeah, it’s a shame that those fuckers are destroying all the historical sites. A few weeks back, palmyra was taken over again by ISIS and they destroyed one more building… Really sad. What do you mean by political undercurrent?
For me, the Middle East is not somewhere I am personally attracted to, but I always read with interest the perspectives and experiences of others. Loved learning about the Kurdish men who have the fascination for necklaces. I wonder where all of that started. Looks like you’ve had a great time there, if your photos are anything to go by.
Hi Kerri, the necklace thing is an ancient Greek game. It had relaxing and anti-stress purposes. Not much of a secret 😉 I hope one day you are attracted to the Middle East! Is the region I’ve traveled the most!
A 50c Shawama – I’m sold! I never think to visit the heart of the middle east (preferring to stay on the fringes in places like Dubai and Doha) due to their precarious position in relation to ISIS, but I find their culture fascinating. Interesting to hear about the men and their necklaces – and that westerners would we welcome to sit down and smoke a shisha with the locals!
A very interesting insight to Iraq. I like your idea of sitting next to a Kurd to smoke and drink tea with them. It must lead to some interesting communication.
Breathtaking photos!! I would absolutely, absolutely love to visit Iraq. It’s been high on my bucket list for some time now. I dearly hope 2017 can be the year that I make it happen <3
I hope you really mean it Aileen 😉 Please, let me know before you go
I can help you if you come to kurdistan ? Let me help you
Hello, are you still there ?
I love the choices you make about where you travel. Really unique and true to your blog’s name! Erbil looks really interesting, from the culture to the landmarks. Great list of things to do in Erbil!
It took me 3 weeks to find this name and, since I’ve always been working on Brand Management, I really wanted to find that name that summarizes the concept and content of my site! It was tough! Loads of brainstorming but finally go it 😉 ! I’m glad you find Iraq interesting
So fascinating to read about Iraq – it’s very rare these days to find an article or post which paints it in a positive light, so I’m so glad that you’ve been able to share with us the highlights of Erbil … hopefully these kind of insights can change people’s perspectives of a war torn and dangerous nation.
I would love to travel to Erbil – this to me screams real travel – history, culture in tact, it’s a real experience and so much opportunity for cultural immersion away from the mass tourism which plagues other cities.
Thanks for the photos and sharing your insights from your time here!
Hey Megan, I wish you are talking seriously and you are thinking of going to Erbil at any time soon. If you do, please let me know in advance 😉 And yes, at least Kurdistan is a place where one can only write good things about it. After Lebanon, this is the only Middle Eastern country with a large middle class!
Hi dear ….
in fact the history of Erbil is Turkmen city, just go back to 40 years ago when the kurds came to Erbil for selling and trading ….until that time, there was no one who could speak kurdish, that all happend in saddam rijim time and then they migrated them to Erbil…
Hi, I don’t understand what you mean
Beautiful! May I print your pictures for talking about with our refugees? I please you. Mila
Yes, of course you can print them 🙂
Thank you …ya you will have to be polite and friendly with the locals then they Respect you more its the imp. point… & keep smiling ^^
Type here..Hello am Martin Kweku and am a Ghanaian, I want to visit Kurdistan within this year. I wish you could make me your friend so that we can chat more.
Hey what’s up , how I can help you?
Hey what’s up , how I can help you
I did not know much about Erbil in Iraq, until I found some pictures that a friend posted on his Instagram. The place looked interesting and I came across this article while trying to find more about this place. Erbil is definitely on my bucket list now.
In Erbil today. Can vouchsafe everything Joan says. It is the perfect tourist destination and my daughter and I are the ONLY bloody tourists here. A consequence is no hassling whatsoever and you pay the local price. Yes two shwama with works for A$3.
Is very safe. People need distinguish political danger from bandit country. I found it more modern, tidier with better services than most eastern European capitals. Wish I could put up a few pictures.
How about air quality? Is it bad or moderate?
I’d say good to very good with clear skies everyday. Mind you we’d just flown in from Lahore. In december!
I am in erbil right now and would like to note that super budget accom (layli) you recommended is sadly no longer. Myself and another traveler I crossed paths with in Suli both searched it out with no luck! Thank you for this blog though, it has been instrumental in my trip!! 🙂
thanks for the update!
I have been to Erbil twice in the past 6 months, thanks to this great guide which helped me in many ways specially my first visit. As for taxis from Airport you can also book your taxi online in advance at NA Much cheaper and reliable.
I almost believe it, but you just tried to spam with a website that doesn’t accept bookings in Erbil